This is a short appreciation of a truly significant writer in American literature whose life and career intersected with Richland County. It is easier to understand why Richland is meaningful in this story if we tell the tale backwards.
So we’ll start with why they wrote biographies about him.
The author’s name was David Ross Locke, but he wrote his columns, letters, stories and books through the identity of his literary character, whose name was Petroleum V. Nasby. By the time Nasby was firmly identified in American culture as a literary icon, there were many readers who didn’t necessarily know Locke even existed—they only knew Nasby.
Nasby became popular during the Civil War for writing letters that appeared in newspapers across the northern United States.
He was a kind of anti-hero: a lazy, drunken, angry, illiterate bigot, whose arrogant opinions were expressed in his own words, in his own ignorant spelling.
Nasby was created as an intellectual weapon against the political views and attitudes of anyone who supported slavery. Nasby supported slavery, and Locke used his literary talents to make Nasby look like an idiot.
As Nasby sputtered and fumed his self-important rants against the government, he grew in popularity, and gradually served to solidify public sentiment in the North.
A few years later a member of President Grant’s Cabinet asserted, “The North won the Civil War by three forces: the Army, the Navy, and the Nasby papers.”
Locke was known to be a particular favorite of President Lincoln, who sometimes opened his meetings by reading aloud from the latest Nasby letters. The very night he died, Lincoln delayed his trip to the theater by entertaining his guests with a reading from Nasby.
In the decades following the war, Locke became ever more popular in books and newspapers and, through him, the satirical use of backwards, bumbling characters became an established motif in American literature.
It didn’t hurt that his books were illustrated by the most popular political cartoonist in the country: Thomas Nast. Nast’s pictures gave Nasby a face that resonated with all the readers who ‘loved to hate him.’
Locke’s fame as a humorist was eclipsed only by his friend Mark Twain, and the two of them toured the lecture circuit together. Locke’s appearances were most often publicized in advance as a ‘personal appearance of Nasby.’
David Ross Locke died in 1888 and his fame didn’t really survive into the 20th century. As society evolved and life improved for Black Americans, his crude and vulgar Nasby character became extremely incorrect. Though no one could say his work wasn’t tremendously effective and important at the time when it was written, his language precluded him from further serious discussion when times changed.
It is easier to read the Nasby papers by keeping in mind that Locke’s writing style was not merely propaganda, but an actual weapon of war. It’s not for the squeamish. Aside from the challenging spelling that a reader has to navigate, the content of anger and bitterness can be a mean and smelly swamp to get through.
The genre is called humor, and there are certainly moments of high comedy that can choke out a laugh, but it is a dark humor cooked up out of very painful irony.
Locke and Nasby were priceless assets during the Civil War. They are mostly forgotten today, and rather ignored, because Nasby can be an embarrassing reminder of a very awkward chapter of America’s growing up.
The Journey to Richland
David Ross Locke was born in 1833 in western New York, and his education ended before he was 12. He made his way toward Richland County as a printer’s assistant, working at a series of newspapers between there and here.
He landed in Plymouth in 1852 and, eager to bind his various newspaper experiences together into something meaningful, Locke and his pal scrounged up $42 and started the Plymouth Advertiser.
The Advertiser lasted 136 years so it obviously had a solid foundation, but by 1855 Locke had moved to Mansfield where he took part ownership of the Herald.
A year after that he was in Bucyrus at the Journal, and he didn’t actually land to stay put until he got to Findlay. It was there, at the Hancock Jeffersonian, where the Nasby letters started and Locke launched into American history.
It was during the stints he did in Plymouth, Mansfield, and Crawford County, however, when Locke found his voice by experimenting in humor. To someone who studies the evolution of style, it is priceless material.
The Plymouth and Mansfield stories are not so dangerous as his later material, and a lot of them are pretty funny.
Characters & Stories
Locke’s first tentative steps into humor at the Advertiser were short quips and quotes attributed to a fictional character in Plymouth known only as Snooks. An example:
‘Pray,’ said Snooks to a gentleman who overtook him on the road, ‘will you have the complaisance to take my coat in your carriage to town?’
‘With pleasure, sir; but how will you get it again?’
‘Oh, very easy,’ replied the modest applicant: ‘I shall remain in it.’
These first anecdotal experiments were simply blocks of type created to fill empty space on the newspaper page, and Locke’s friends said he made them up as needed while he was setting the type.
After that he developed a character named Sniggs, whose sad and funny tales about his family and neighbors were “submitted” to the paper as letters to the editor.
Locke discovered that through the persona of “J. Augustus Sniggs,” he could insinuate his opinions anonymously into the community by synthesizing fact and fiction. He fabricated comic characters who acted out their stories with real places and events in Plymouth and Mansfield.
Some folks in the community said it was perhaps too real; particularly his in-laws. They claimed that the humorous episodes of Mr. Sniggs were drawn from their own family history.
Significantly, the only tale to survive from the 1855 letters regards Sniggs’ mother-in-law. In his letter to the Mansfield Herald, Sniggs tells of how his mother-in-law made a gift to him of a milk cow on the day of his wedding.
The cow, it turned out, could not be milked and it refused to stay at the Sniggs barn—always sneaking off and returning to the mother-in-law’s place. In time Sniggs learns that she has made a wedding gift of that same cow to each and every one who married into the family.
It was during his stay at the Bucyrus Journal when Locke’s humor became politically radicalized. On the eve of the Civil War, when nobody could speak of anything but the South threatening to split off the United States, the writer mocked all the indignant posturing by posting a proclamation in his paper declaring that Crawford County was seceding from the Union.
He printed the declaration as if it had originated from the one particular location in Crawford County that he considered to have the highest density of lazy, drunken, angry, illiterate, bigoted, arrogant and opinionated people.
It was a real place: a crossroads north of Bucyrus called Wingert’s Corners.
Though he didn’t realize it at the time, in writing this satirical diatribe Locke had stumbled on to the voice of Petroleum V. Nasby.
All throughout the Civil War, long after Locke had departed Crawford County, whenever city folks, country folks, Senators, soldiers and the Commander in Chief smirked at the rantings of Nasby, all those newspaper columns still carried the same, original byline of Nasby’s origin: Wingert’s Corners.
It was an authentic fictional real place.